Diana Varisova/Wikimedia Commons

To Tackle Climate Breakdown, We Need to Build a Post-Work Society

by Emilie Tricarico

There are many reasons to be concerned about the current state of work in our societies. Stagnating wages, precarious and exploitative working conditions and a rise in work-related illnesses have become the new normal, and with an uncertain technological future it’s clear we face a crisis of work. At the same time, the unprecedented climate and ecological crisis we face demands nothing less than an entire transformation of our economies. As argued by a recent report from the think tank Autonomy, reducing working time could help significantly in solving both issues.

For many years, environmental advocates have called for a ‘just transition’ away from work in highly polluting industries – such as the fossil fuel sector – towards employment in renewable energy and green sectors. Given the huge amount of work required to fully decarbonise the economy, large numbers of green jobs will need to be created. Policy programmes such as the ‘Green New Deal’ – which are gaining prominence both in the US and in the UK – seek to do just that.

On the other hand, ecological economists and degrowth advocates have been at the forefront of raising concerns about the environmental implications of exponential economic growth. Economic growth measured in terms of GDP has been strongly criticised for failing to account for social and environmental factors. While this evidence calls for urgent new measures of economic prosperity – aimed at ecological and human well-being – an overall shift from the capitalist system of growth and accumulation is required.

The idea of a post-work future – one where we can all work less and have more time for ourselves – could very well support this break. André Gorz, a central figure in post-work and degrowth thinking, envisioned a society where necessary wage work would be reduced to its minimum to foster activities outside the realm of capitalist production, such as care and creative work. To achieve this goal, Gorz and degrowth advocates have always been strong supporters of working time reduction policies alongside the introduction of a guaranteed or basic income for all.  

Working time reduction is an idea environmentalists have generally supported given the benefits of mitigating the environmental impact of our work-related patterns. For instance, on top of the fact many of our industries today are still too carbon-intensive, there is also a significant ecological burden associated with the transport to and from our workplaces – in particular commuting by car. One study by Juliet Schor and her team used data from 29 OECD countries to conclude a 25% reduction in working time could produce a correlate 30.2% reduction in our ecological footprint. 

While most research in the field has so far been focused on the environmental benefits of a reduction in working time, the latest report from Autonomy turns the question upside down, asking how much time can we afford to spend at work given the climate and ecological crisis we are facing. The findings are striking: it shows to achieve sustainable levels of work – in line with adequate carbon budgets – OECD countries should work on average no more than five hours a week full time. A sustainable working week in the UK would amount to nine hours a week full time. More than a provocation, such findings reinforce calls from degrowth advocates and ecological economists about the necessity of downscaling our economic activity and radically decarbonising production if we are to stay within planetary boundaries.

These scholars have also warned about the unexpected negative effects a mere reduction in working time could have for the environment, given the inherent tendency of capitalism to fuel consumption and promote carbon-intensive leisure activities. A post-work project cannot simply be associated with a reduction in working time, but must be oriented towards breaking from the productivist agenda at the heart of our economies and fostering a radical transformation of the ways we participate in society and what we do with our time. 

The momentum around grassroots and political campaigns for a four day week and a Green New Deal offer timely responses to the climate and ecological emergency we are facing. Calls have been made for these to be implemented accordingly, arguing for the Green New Deal to include a four day week as part of its policy programme. However critics have pointed at the insidious neo-colonial and Western-centric agenda underlying some conceptions of the Green New Deal that fail to challenge the exploitation of an impoverished workforce in the Global South needed to obtain the raw materials necessary for the production of renewable energy. As such, it won’t do to just promote the decarbonisation of the economy through reducing and greening work – a fair vision of work must be rooted in social justice and reject extractivism. 

In addition, new forms of worker ownership are needed to create democratic and sustainable workplaces where workers have a direct say in what they do. The idea of inclusive ownership is about more than creating workers co-operatives – it is also about giving workers the opportunity to access the wealth they produce through owning shares in the companies they work for. These policies are increasingly important for the environment as they allow for wealth to remain in local economies rather than being invested in damaging activities such as fossil fuel extraction.

Besides the necessary shift to create sustainable jobs, it is evident solutions to meet the challenge of the climate crisis are increasingly to be found outside the labour market. Employment is subject to the rules of what is deemed remunerated labour. However, a considerable amount of work that plays a central role in mitigating the impacts of climate breakdown is increasingly unpaid. Volunteering and organising in communities, campaigning, caring for the elderly and the young are essential in driving the impending socio-ecological transition. Rather than traditionally falling upon women, or being the privilege of the time-rich who can engage in activities outside their paid work, these activities should be shared equally and open to everyone. Policies such as basic income and working time reduction could aid this by giving people the time and money to engage in these forms of collective work. 

Many questions remain around how best to shape and implement a socially and environmentally just vision for the future of work. The idea of post-work future offers an opportunity to discuss these questions, and act as a starting point for developing policies aimed at building a world that isn’t reliant on the relentless accumulation of capital, exploitation of workers and degradation of the planet.

Published 11th August 2019

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